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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Did Jesus Mean Hellfire?

SOME who believe the doctrine of hellfire point to Jesus’ words recorded at Mark 9:48 (or verses 44, 46). He mentioned worms (or maggots) that do not die and fire that is not quenched. If someone asked you about those words, how would you respond?

Depending on the Bible version being used, the person might read verse 44, 46, or 48 because these verses read similarly in some versions. The New World Translation reads: “If your eye makes you stumble, throw it away; it is finer for you to enter one-eyed into the kingdom of God than with two eyes to be pitched into Gehenna, where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.”—Mark 9:47, 48.

In any case, some claim that Jesus’ statement supports the view that after death the souls of the wicked suffer forever. For instance, a comment in the Spanish Sagrada Biblia of the University of Navarre says: “Our Lord uses [these words] to refer to the torments of hell. Often ‘the worm that does not die’ is explained as the eternal remorse felt by those in hell; and the ‘fire which is not quenched,’ as their physical pain.”

However, compare Jesus’ words with the final verse of Isaiah’s prophecy. Is it not apparent that Jesus was alluding to the text in Isaiah chapter 66? The prophet there apparently refers to going out “of Jerusalem to the surrounding Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), where human sacrifice was once practiced (Jer 7:31) and which eventually became the city’s refuse heap.” (The Jerome Biblical Commentary) The symbolism at Isaiah 66:24 clearly is not that of people being tortured; it speaks of carcasses. What it refers to as not dying is worms—not live humans or immortal souls. What, then, is the import of Jesus’ words?

Note the comment on Mark 9:48 in the Catholic work El evangelio de Marcos. Análisis lingüístico y comentario exegético, Volume II: “[The] phrase is taken from Isaiah (66,24). There the prophet shows the two ways corpses were usually destroyed: putrefaction and incineration . . . The juxtaposition in the text of maggots and fire reinforces the idea of destruction. . . . Both destructive forces are described as permanent (‘is not quenched, does not die’): there is simply no way to escape them. In this image, the only survivors are the maggot and the fire—not man—and they both annihilate anything that falls within their power. Hence, this is not a description of everlasting torment, but one of total destruction which, as it prevents resurrection from occurring, is tantamount to final death. [Fire] is, then, a symbol of annihilation.”

Anyone who knows that the true God is loving and just should be able to see how reasonable it is to understand Jesus’ words in that way. He was not saying that the wicked will experience everlasting torment. Rather, they are at risk of total destruction that prevents resurrection from occurring.


The most reliable Bible manuscripts do not include verses 44 and 46. Scholars acknowledge that those two verses were likely later additions. Professor Archibald T. Robertson writes: “The oldest and best manuscripts do not give these two verses. They came in from the Western and Syrian (Byzantine) classes. They are a mere repetition of verse 48. Hence we [omit] the numbering 44 and 46 in our verses which are not genuine.”

“They will actually go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that were transgressing against me; for the very worms upon them will not die and their fire itself will not be extinguished, and they must become something repulsive to all flesh.”—Isa. 66:24.

- June 5, 2008 Watchtower, WTB&TS


In Christianity, annihilationism is the belief that sinners are destroyed, rather than tormented forever in "hell" as in the lake of fire. It is directly related to the doctrine of conditional immortality, the idea that a human soul is not immortal unless it is given eternal life. Annihilationism asserts that God will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked, leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality. Some annihilationists believe the wicked will be punished for their sins in the lake of fire before being annihilated, others that hell is a false doctrine of pagan origin. It stands in contrast to the "traditional view" of eternal torment, and the view that everyone will be saved (universal reconciliation or simply "universalism") which is often associated with liberal Christianity.

The belief is a minority view, although it has appeared throughout Christian history. And is now almost a common view among conservative theologians.

Christian denominations which are annihilationist were influenced by the Millerite/Adventist movement of the mid-19th century. These include the Seventh-day Adventists, Bible Students, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians and the various Advent Christian churches. Additionally, the Church of England's Doctrine Commission reported in 1995 that "[h]ell is not eternal torment", but "non-being". Some Protestant and Anglican writers have also proposed annihilationist doctrines.

Annihilationists base the doctrine on their exegesis of Scripture, some early church writing, historical criticism of the doctrine of hell, and the concept of God as too loving to punish his creations forever. They claim that the popular conceptions of hell stem from Jewish speculation during the intertestamental period, belief in an immortal soul which originated in Greek philosophy and influenced Christianity, and also graphic and imaginative medieval art and poetry.

Millerite and Adventist movement

Recently the doctrine has been most often associated with groups descended from or with influences from the Millerite movement of the mid-19th century. These include the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Bible Students, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, followers of Herbert Armstrong, and the various Advent Christian churches. (The Millerite movement consisted of 50,000 to 100,000 people in the United States who eagerly expected the soon return of Jesus, and originated around William Miller).

George Storrs introduced the belief to the Millerites. He had been a Methodist minister and antislavery advocate. He was introduced to the view when in 1837 he read a pamphlet by Henry Grew. He published tracts in 1841 and 1842 arguing for conditionalism and annihilation. He became a Millerite, and started the Bible Examiner in 1843 to promote these views. However most leaders of the movement rejected these beliefs, other than Charles Fitch who accepted conditionalism. Still, in 1844 the movement officially decided these issues were not essential points of belief.

The Millerites expected Jesus to return around 1843 or 1844, based on Bible texts including Daniel 8:14, and one Hebrew Calendar. When the most expected date of Jesus' return (October 22, 1844) passed uneventfully, the "Great Disappointment" resulted. Followers met in 1845 to discuss the future direction of the movement, and were henceforth known as "Adventists". However they split on the issues of conditionalism and annihilation. The dominant group, which published the Advent Herald, adopted the traditional position of the immortal soul, and became the American Evangelical Adventist Conference. On the other hand, groups behind the Bible Advocate and Second Advent Watchman adopted conditionalism. Later, the main advocate of conditionalism became the World's Crisis publication, which started in the early 1850s, and played a key part in the origin of the Advent Christian Church. Storrs came to believe the wicked would never be resurrected. He and like-minded others formed the Life and Advent Union in 1863.

Christian conditionalism

In Christian theology, conditional immortality or conditionalism or is a concept of special salvation in which the gift of immortality is attached to (conditional upon) belief in Jesus Christ. This doctrine is based in part upon another theological argument, that because the human soul is naturally mortal, immortality ("eternal life") is therefore granted by God as a gift. This viewpoint stands in contrast to the more popular doctrine of the "natural immortality" of the soul. It is usually paired with annihilationism, the belief that the unsaved will be ultimately destroyed and cease to exist, rather than suffer unending torment in hell. The view is also connected with the idea of soul sleep, in which the dead sleep unconscious till resurrection at Judgement Day.

- From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 12/3/2010

- also see:

Turning the “Hose” on Hell

In harmony with Brother Russell’s strong desire to remove from God’s name the foul stain that resulted from the teaching of a hellfire of eternal torment, he wrote a tract featuring the subject, “Do the Scriptures Teach That Eternal Torment Is the Wages of Sin?” (The Old Theology, 1889) In it he said:

“The eternal torment theory had a heathen origin, though as held by the heathen it was not the merciless doctrine it afterward became, when it began gradually to attach itself to nominal Christianity during its blending with heathen philosophies in the second century. It remained for the great apostasy to tack to heathen philosophy the horrid details now so generally believed, to paint them upon the church walls, as was done in Europe, to write them in their creeds and hymns, and to so pervert the Word of God as to give a seeming divine support to the God-dishonoring blasphemy. The credulity of the present day, therefore, receives it as a legacy, not from the Lord, or the apostles, or the prophets, but from the compromising spirit which sacrificed truth and reason, and shamefully perverted the doctrines of Christianity, in an unholy ambition and strife for power and wealth and numbers. Eternal torment as the penalty for sin was unknown to the patriarchs of past ages; it was unknown to the prophets of the Jewish age; and it was unknown to the Lord and the apostles; but it has been the chief doctrine of Nominal Christianity since the great apostasy—the scourge wherewith the credulous, ignorant and superstitious of the world have been lashed into servile obedience to tyranny. Eternal torment was pronounced against all who offered resistance to or spurned Rome’s authority, and its infliction in the present life was begun so far as she had power.”

Brother Russell was well aware that the majority of sensible people did not really believe the doctrine of hellfire. But, as he pointed out, in 1896, in the booklet What Say the Scriptures About Hell?, “since they think that the Bible teaches it, every step they progress in real intelligence and brotherly kindness . . . is in most cases a step away from God’s Word, which they falsely accuse of this teaching.”

To draw such thinking people back to God’s Word, he presented in this booklet every text in the King James Version in which the word hell was found, so readers could see for themselves what these said, and then he stated: “Thank God, we find no such place of everlasting torture as the creeds and hymn-books, and many pulpits, erroneously teach. Yet we have found a ‘hell,’ sheol, hades, to which all our race were condemned on account of Adam’s sin, and from which all are redeemed by our Lord’s death; and that ‘hell’ is the tomb—the death condition. And we find another ‘hell’ (gehenna—the second death—utter destruction) brought to our attention as the final penalty upon all who, after being redeemed and brought to the full knowledge of the truth, and to full ability to obey it, shall yet choose death by choosing a course of opposition to God and righteousness. And our hearts say, Amen. True and righteous are thy ways, thou King of nations. Who shall not venerate thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? For thou art entirely holy. And all nations shall come and worship before thee, because thy righteous dealings are made manifest.”—Rev. 15:3, 4.

What he was teaching was a source of irritation and embarrassment to the clergy of Christendom. In 1903 he was challenged to public debate. The condition of the dead was one of the issues in the resulting series of debates between C. T. Russell and Dr. E. L. Eaton, who served as spokesman for an unofficial alliance of Protestant ministers in the western part of Pennsylvania.

Additional Reading:

During those debates Brother Russell firmly upheld the proposition that “death is death, and that our dear ones, when they pass from us, are really dead, that they are neither alive with the angels nor with demons in a place of despair.” In support of this, he referred to such scriptures as Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Romans 5:12; 6:23; and Genesis 2:17. He also said: “The scriptures are in full harmony with what you and I and every other sane, reasonable person in the world shall concede to be the reasonable and proper character of our God. What is declared of our heavenly Father? That he is just, that he is wise, that he is loving, that he is powerful. All Christian people will acknowledge these attributes of the divine character. If this is so, can we find any sense of the word in which we could conceive of God as just and yet punishing a creature of His own hand to all eternity, no matter what the sin was? I am not an apologist for sin; I do not live in sin myself, and I never preach sin. . . . But I tell you that all these people around here that our brother [Dr. Eaton] says are making the air blue with their blasphemies of God and the holy name of Jesus Christ are all people who have been taught this doctrine of eternal torment. And all the murderers, thieves and evil doers in the penitentiaries, were all taught this doctrine. . . . These are bad doctrines; they have been injuring the world this long time; they are not a part of the Lord’s teaching at all, and our dear brother has not gotten the smoke of the dark ages rubbed out of his eyes yet.” -

It is reported that after the debate a clergyman who was in attendance approached Russell and said: “I am glad to see you turn the hose on hell and put out the fire.”

To give even more widespread publicity to the truth about the condition of the dead, Brother Russell served an extensive series of one-day conventions, from 1905 through 1907, at which he featured the public discourse “To Hell and Back! Who Are There? Hope for Return of Many.” The title was intriguing, and it attracted much attention. Audiences packed out assembly halls in cities both large and small in the United States and Canada to hear the talk.

Among those who were deeply moved by what the Bible says about the condition of the dead was a university student in Cincinnati, Ohio, who was preparing to become a Presbyterian minister. In 1913 he received from his fleshly brother the booklet Where Are the Dead?, written by John Edgar, a Bible Student who was also a medical doctor in Scotland. The student who received that booklet was Frederick Franz. After reading it carefully, he firmly declared: “This is the truth.” Without hesitation, he changed his goals in life and got into the full-time ministry as a colporteur evangelizer. In 1920 he became a member of the Watch Tower Society’s headquarters staff. Many years later he became a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, later, the president of the Watch Tower Society.

Jehovah’s Witnesses—Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, WTB&TS